Celebrating Women in History: Ernestine Anderson

Screen-Shot-2023-02-28-at-3.35.26-PM Photo courtesy of Koryn Rolstad

As we celebrate Women's History Month, it's important to recognize women and the contributions they have made to various fields throughout history. One woman who left a lasting mark on Seattle's music scene and culture is the late Ernestine Anderson, a jazz singer who became known as "Seattle's First Lady of Jazz." Anderson was not only a trailblazer for women in music across the globe, but she also had a special relationship with the Paramount Theatre and the city of Seattle. In honor of this year's Women's History Month Theme, "celebrating women who tell our stories", we invite you to read the feature below and join us in sharing her legacy.

About Ernestine Anderson

Born in 1928 in Houston, Texas, Anderson's journey began at a young age when she discovered her love for music while singing along to her parent's blues records and performing gospel solos at her grandmother's church. She quickly became a local sensation after winning a talent contest at the Club Eldorado in Houston's third ward and performing regularly there after.

Despite her budding success, Anderson's father worried that music was becoming too much of a distraction from her academics and moved the family to Seattle in search of a quieter life. Little did they know that Seattle's music scene was just as vibrant, with a booming jazz scene in the central district during the 1940s and 50s.

Anderson wasted no time in immersing herself in Seattle's music community, making friends with fellow musicians at Garfield High School and singing with the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band. Her talent even caught the attention of top Seattle producer and promoter Norm Bobrew, who booked her to perform at the Metropolitan Theatre for a Northwest jazz series. 

Ernestine Anderson, photo courtesy of the Black Heritage Society of Washington

Anderson's big break came when R&B artist Johnny Otis came to town seeking a new singer for his band. With her parents' reluctant approval, Anderson quit high school to tour on the road with Otis. The band settled in Los Angeles for a while before dissolving. Later in 1952, famed big band leader Lionel Hampton had an opening for a new singer. With the encouragement of her husband, Anderson auditioned. She was hired and toured with the band for 15 months; fellow Seattle native Quincy Jones was in the trumpet section. 

After some more grueling time on the road, Anderson left Hampton's ensemble and gave a shot at breaking into the scene in New York City. The Big Apple, however, proved to be a challenging place to make a name in, and Anderson found herself taking on jobs as a waitress and hotel maid. Anderson did manage a couple breaks though, especially when she made an appearance on Gigi Gryce's 1955 album, Nica's Tempo, which led her to get an invite to tour Scandinavia with the Rolf Erickson combo. In Sweden, she recorded her first solo album, Hot Cargo, which was released by Mercury RecordsHot Cargo recieved raving reviews from critics and major outlets such as The New York Times and Down Beat

Anderson's career hit a bump in the road when she took a hiatus from recording in the early 1960s as the rock music revolution took over, but she credits her discovery and practice of Buddhist chanting with her recovery. She signed with Concord Records in 1976 and released her first album on the Concord Jazz label in 1977, kickstarting her career once again.

Ernestine Anderson Mercury Records cover, photo courtesy of Koryn Rolstad

Ernestine Anderson and the Paramount Theatre

Anderson's relationship with the Paramount Theatre began in the early 1990s. The theatre's management team invited Anderson to perform at a benefit concert that doubled as her 70th birthday bash to help raise funds for local charities. Anderson's performance was a huge success, and she went on to become a regular performer at the Paramount. The owner, Ida Cole announced that night that the VIP reception area would henceforth be named The Ernestine Anderson Room in her honor. Seattle Theatre Group now uses the room as a VIP space to host donors and sponsors before shows

Anderson's performances at the Paramount were always highly anticipated events. Her warm, soulful voice filled the theatre, and her presence on stage was magnetic. She had a way of connecting with the audience that was truly special, and her performances always left audiences feeling uplifted and inspired. 

Anderson was also an early mentor for young musicians in Seattle Theatre Group's More Music @ The Moore program and delighted in performing with a mixture of young and seasoned musicians on the Paramount stage again in 2008 for a Lifetime Achievement Award Tribute to Quincy Jones. Ernestine was his big surprise, joining Buddy Catlett and Clarence Acox anchoring a quartet, for a beautifully delivered rendition of My Ship.

Ernestine Anderson on the Paramount theatre stage for her 70th birthday benefit

Ernestine Anderson's lasting legacy 

From humble beginnings singing jazz and blues in some of Seattle's most underground rooms a half-century ago, Ernestine Anderson was, in her later years, more likely to be seen and heard thrilling large hometown crowds with shows at Seattle's finest venues including the Opera House (with the Seattle Symphony), Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, the Experience Music Project, and the fabulous Benaroya Hall. "Ernestine was a giant of the jazz community and a Seattle ambassador to the world," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. "She represented the best of our city. Her work was a vibrant part of our community's culture. I will never forget her performances and I feel fortunate to have witnessed her artistry and genius. Her recordings will live on and influence other musicians for years to come."

Over the course of her career, Anderson released more than 30 albums, was on the cover of Time magazine, and got nominated for four Grammys. She earned multiple awards and accolades locally, such as the Golden Umbrella Award at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in 2002, which honors artists from the Northwest "who have significantly contributed to the cultural landscape of our region." She was also chosen for the 2004 IMPACT Award by the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Recording Academy, which honors Northwest music professionals "whose creative talents and accomplishments have crossed all musical boundaries and who have been recognized as an asset to the music community." A portion of Jackson Street also bears her name, and in 2012, the Low Income Housing Institute named a Central District housing complex "Ernestine Anderson Place" in her honor. For a couple years Ernestine even fronted her own popular namesake jazz club, Ernestine's, in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.

Ernestine Anderson passed away in 2016 at the age of 87, but her legacy lives on in Seattle and beyond. She was one of the first women to break into the male-dominated world of jazz singing, and she paved the way for countless female artists who came after her. Anderson was also an advocate for social justice and used her music to raise awareness about important issues, such as civil rights and the plight of the homeless.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, let us remember and honor pioneering women like Ernestine Anderson who will forever be a culutral icon for future generations of women in music and beyond. May their stories continue to inspire and empower us all. 

Ernestine Anderson, photo courtesy of Koryn Rolstad
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